Here is an anecdote from a friend:

My sister, who is now actually a practicing doctor, when asked around the age of six by my dad what she wanted to be when she grew up said she wanted to be a nurse. When dad responded by asking why she didn’t want to be a doctor she said, “can women be doctors?”

Representation is not isolated to our screens. It trickles down to infiltrate real people, real decisions, and real aspirations. Decisions made about a fantasy universe with endless realities both can and do matter to our here and now. Jodie Whittaker’s casting as Doctor Who matters.

Within minutes of the news of the thirteenth incarnation of the famous Time Lord the Internet and Twittersphere exploded with reactions, with this “bold” choice from the BBC drawing both praise and criticism.[1] Many of the negative responses have not made their way fully into articles and rounded arguments but instead lurk in hashtags, comments, and memes, but they are still there and should be engaged with, not ignored. Although revolving around a specific character for a specific show, this decision by the BBC has brought up a wider and crucially important discussion of gender and the role of women in the arts. We must ask why, in 2017, does this decision seem so “groundbreaking”?[2]

Some of the arguments against the Doctor’s gender switch centre around the loss of the classic “hero” to which young boys can aspire, that they “grew up with”.[3] One fan going as far (with logic that is slightly confusing so hang on) that as the Doctor is seen as a largely pacifistic character who uses logic rather than violence he must be male to remain the “great role model” for boys; opposing the other “violent” male characters that boys are influenced by (because of course we really are short of strong male leads and it’s not as if the detective genre is male-dominated or anything) e.g. “Harry Potter… blows things up with a magic wand. Star Wars… kills people with a shiney [sic] sword. Lord of the Rings… use sword, or bow, or axe, or staff”. In summary, he argues that having a female Doctor undermines the shows role of present a different idea of masculinity, that now “no longer is ‘running away’ a valid male strategy…. because it turned out the Doctor was a woman all along”. [4]

This is exactly the kind of reason the choice of a woman in a role such as Doctor Who is so important: it forces us to redefine our of idea cultural conceptions of gender, the idea of who “hero” figures can inspire and the idea that qualities are gender specific. We have had a rise of imperfect, rude, unapologetic women such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (Fleabag) and in theatre Duncan Macmillan’s Emma (People, Places and Things), which is definitely a positive step in terms of female representation. But a female Doctor could be a key part of the next phase for female roles: being the central figure. Instead of playing against the existing gender stereotypes, female protagonists can finally become more a fully rounded, independent characters.

This links to the argument of some who oppose the choice of Whittaker by saying that the current inclusion of prominent female characters such as River Song (Alex Kingston), the assistants, and the Master’s regeneration into Missy (Michelle Gomez) is enough on the representation front. The latter of these even already introduced the concept of Time Lords’ capacity to swap gender when regenerating. The transition from a secondary character to the primary eponymous character is a fundamentally important development in female casting: to put a woman entirely at the forefront separate from others, and as the character around which the action is defined. Until we have this on a widespread scale, women are going to be seen as beneath men on TV and, by extension, in life.

In fact this discussion around gender and having a “female” Doctor is slightly flawed in its basic thinking as the character is in fact technically genderless, and so this inclusion only confirms an existing concept and thus is the ideal role to explore the transition between sexes. Whittaker can take the role and help to prove that she doesn’t have to be a “female Doctor” but can just be “the Doctor”. However, the world takes a while to change and there is already a danger of her performance as an actor and an artist being undermined by her gender. Whittaker has already had to do what she can to tell the show’s fans “not to be scared by my gender”[5] (it is depressing that this is still necessary in 2017). But in terms of critical reactions, it is a fine line of acknowledging the importance of casting a woman in the role against the specific creative choices she makes for the character, which will also be underpinned by how the part is written. Will her performance be critiqued in the same vein as if she was a man? It seems unlikely. The immediate responses to her casting serve as yet another indicator that true gender equality is not here yet.[6]

This is then, for me personally, the wider and main issue: the way women are perceived in the arts. To those stating that this decision was a mistake or not needed, women are still massively under-represented in the arts industry and the media and it is only through decisions like this that things will improve. A report on the New York Film Academy blog about female representation on screen[7] makes for sobering reading: in the top five hundred films from 2007-2012, only 30.8% of the speaking characters were women; in 2014 women accounted for only 12% of on-screen protagonists, and most recently of the top one hundred films of 2016 women comprised 29% of protagonists. And that is only appearances and casting; if you then get into the specific representation of women and the industry treatment of female actors in the arts it is sadly not much better. In the same report 26.2% of the women characters got partially naked compared to 9.4% of men, and in 2013 Forbes revealed that the top ten paid female actors made a collective 181 million dollars and the top ten highest paid male actors made 465 million dollars. Additionally the recent release of the BBC wages revealed that only a third of its ninety-six top earners are women and the top seven are all men.[8] This decision is bigger than one character and one show: it has ramifications for the whole industry and moreover future generations by what they take in through their media and the cultural landscape they absorb.

Doctor Who is proclaimed by Guinness World Records to be the “longest running science fiction TV series” and “most successful sci-fi TV show” with “the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama”, after 94 countries aired the 50th anniversary special at the same exact time last November,[9] so placing a woman at the forefront is going to have a big influence. When these decisions arise, casting a minority in current representation of any kind it is always a progressive choice to make (such as the choice of Bill, a mixed race and openly gay character) and will open doors until these decisions no longer feel as important and ground breaking.

And finally I wish to answer those who are apposing Whittaker’s casting with the weakest argument of the lot (and one sadly mentioned by previous Time Lord, Peter Davidson): that the Doctor has always been a man, and that is inbuilt in the iconic character, like James Bond.[10] James Bond is a human. The Doctor is a regenerating, time travelling alien with two hearts. Given this reality, the idea that a switch of gender is shocking is utterly ludicrous. Built into the very foundations of the show is the idea of transformation and redevelopment giving a precious ability to change with societal ideas and cultural trends and, in fact, help to affect those trends, such as female representation. We should be looking to redefine and reimagine literature and cultural icons, not just continue safely. James Bond is written as a man, in fact as a male fantasy figure. One gets the feeling that if Bond is left undeveloped, there may be a time when that idea does not resonate, and then the power of heritage may not be so important. The Doctor can regenerate out of this fate.

However, either way that is not reason to prevent choices such as this. Doctor Who is a show about far out possibilities and new exciting ideas, the Doctor changing gender is trivial compared to a lot of other things that happen in the show. This decision has redefined one of Britain’s iconic pop culture roles for the entire population and hopefully paved the way for a new way of thinking about gender and in our society, to a place where an actor does not need to apologise for their gender.[11] Women can be Doctors too. It’s about time.

 

[1] Matthew Holmes, “’A Stellar Choice’: Your Thoughts On Jodie Whittaker’s Casting In Doctor Who”, The Guardian, 17th July 2017, Https://Www.Theguardian.Com/Tv-And-Radio/2017/Jul/17/A-Stellar-Choice-Your-Thoughts-On-Jodie-Whittakers-Casting-In-Doctor-Who.

[2] Tom Powell, “Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker Revealed As First Ever Female Doctor In Groundbreaking Move For Iconic BBC Series”, Eveningstandard, 16th July, Https://Www.Ipetitions.Com/Petition/New-13-Doctor-Actor.

[3] Https://Www.Quora.Com/Why-Do-Some-Whovians-Hate-Having-A-Female-Doctor-Who

[4] Ibid.

[5]Sarah Doran, “13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker: “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender”, Radio Times 16th July. Http://Www.Radiotimes.Com/News/2017-07-16/13th-Doctor-Jodie-Whittaker-I-Want-To-Tell-The-Fans-Not-To-Be-Scared-By-My-Gender

[6] One source of encouragement is that the BBC will have anticipated a backlash from a section of the show’s viewers, but did it anyway. This implies they know that annoying a misogynistic section of the fanbase and picking up a new generation of female and open-minded fans is both possible and desirable.

[7] New York Film Academy Blog, “Gender Inequality In Film”, New York Film Academy Blog, 2013, https://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film/

[8] Graham Ruddick, “BBC Facing Backlash From Female Stars After Gender Pay Gap Revealed”, The Guardian 20th July 2017. Https://Www.Theguardian.Com/Media/2017/Jul/19/Evans-Lineker-Bbc-Top-Earners-Only-Two-Women-Among-Best-Paid-Stars

[9] Kevin Lynch, “Doctor Who 50th Anniversary: The Time Lord’s World Records”, Guiness World Records 22nd November 2013. Http://Www.Guinnessworldrecords.Com/News/2013/11/Doctor-Who-50th-Anniversary-The-Time-Lord%E2%80%99s-World-Records-53100/

[10] Chris Hastings And Peter Henn, “Doctor Who Can NEVER Be A Woman… Says The Ex-Doctor Whose Own Daughter Is A Time Lord!” Daily Mail, 2nd November 2013. Http://Www.Dailymail.Co.Uk/News/Article-2485073/Doctor-Who-NEVER-Woman-Says-Peter-Davison.Html#Ixzz4nyirfyxf

[11]Sarah Doran, “13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker: “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender”, Radio Times, 16th July. Http://Www.Radiotimes.Com/News/2017-07-16/13th-Doctor-Jodie-Whittaker-I-Want-To-Tell-The-Fans-Not-To-Be-Scared-By-My-Gender